The visit this week of a delegation of senior representatives of the prestigious Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, gives Belfast a chance to renew and rejuvenate its lopsided, unionist-only sister city relationship with the ‘Athens of the South’.
Over the past 20 years, the chance to build a progressive partnership with Nashville has been squandered in the pursuit of a vacuous Ulster-Scots-only agenda.
Thus, two Ulster-Scots groups sit on the advisory body which supervises Belfast’s association with Nashville but not one representative of our community organisations.
Not surprisingly, that has resulted in a relationship which hasn’t mined the huge reservoir of support and goodwill for Ireland in Nashville nor the legendary links between Irish ceol and what is the music capital of the US. Indeed, Nashville hosted the World Irish Dance Championships last year, a privilege Belfast will have again in 2012. Yet, incredibly, there was no attempt by our City Fathers to link both events.
Sadly, what has also been missed in this exchange between Belfast and Nashville has been the shared history of civil rights in both cities. It is said Nashville was spared the worst of the black backlash in ‘60s America because it integrated swiftly. Nevertheless, one of the most storied leaders of the black civil rights movement, the Rev James Lawson, was once dismissed from Vanderbilt University for taking part in the civil rights struggle.
He memorably took part in the sit-in lunch-counter demonstrations in Nashville, being beaten for daring to insist on being served at a restaurant previously reserved for whites-only.
Vanderbilt University has made its peace with the Rev Lawson by conferring upon him an honorary degree in recent years. Perhaps it’s time now too for Belfast to make peace with its darker, unequal past, by initiating a relationship with Nashville which celebrates the peace and unites unionist and nationalist in a new period of wider and more inclusive outreach to the Tennessee city.